Business junior Rachel Holmes submitted her last final and closed all of the tabs open on her computer on Dec. 15. Instead of exerting a sigh of relief as she walked out of a lecture hall, she marked the end of the semester from her bedroom.

“I definitely felt burned out from the standpoint that studying for finals was the hardest this semester than ever before,” Holmes said. “I just felt less motivated throughout, because there weren't as many milestones. You don't leave a building and you're like, ‘That was the last time I’ll sit in that room and just take a test or have a lecture.’ It’s kind of like, ‘I’m gonna be back at my desk again in 20 minutes.’”

Holmes was one of thousands of University of Michigan students taking her finals virtually this semester after all classes moved online post-Thanksgiving break. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, over 78% of credit hour classes at the University have been online since the beginning of the semester. Even more students were shifted to a virtual format after Washtenaw County issued a stay-at-home order in October following a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.

With this fall being the first entirely-remote semester for many students, some said their education was different from prior semesters. Many students faced issues such as “Zoom fatigue”, missing out on in-person labs and research, difficulty keeping up with the workload and persistent struggles to stay motivated as the semester progressed. More than 1,000 students were also diagnosed with COVID-19 during the semester, and thousands more were exposed or had to quarantine.

Holmes said her first semester of junior year in the Ross School of Business — one that is typically dominated by group projects — was made more challenging because her groups could not meet in-person. Holmes said she experienced Zoom fatigue throughout the semester because of these projects.

“It's so much harder to have banter and fun team dynamics when everyone is not in the same room,” Holmes said. 

LSA sophomore Agnes Dunne also grappled with staying motivated and maintaining her mental health while taking classes fully remotely. She felt that most of the components to cultivate student engagement were lacking through online classes. 

“I think (this semester) was a lot harder,” Dunne said. “I think even just existing for the past six months has been difficult. I (struggled) with the motivation of virtual classes, to feel connected to doing the work and (being) able to focus.”

Dunne said it was difficult to “catch a break” from the heavy workload that was assigned to her.

“I was in this constant for most of November: ‘Oh my god, I need to do this and this and this and I'm falling behind and I'm not doing well,’” Dunne said. 

LSA freshman Alex Nguyen said his first-year experience at the University was negatively impacted by the virtual format. Nguyen said disorganization among the administration and faculty contributed to a heavy workload and a lack of structure in online classes. 

“I didn't know what to expect walking into Michigan at all,” Nguyen said. “I felt like I didn't think I learned anything that was mind-blowing at all. I don't really feel like I got the ‘Michigan Difference.’”

Nguyen said one positive aspect of this semester was that asynchronous classes gave him the ability to work more at his own pace. As COVID-19 cases rose in residence halls this past semester, Nguyen — who is immunocompromised — was forced to travel between Ann Arbor and his hometown in Oklahoma.

“Whenever I had something to do (…) then I could go do it, and then come back to the lecture later,” Nguyen said.

Engineering sophomore Ethan Burt also enjoyed the asynchronous format of most of his classes. He felt as though professors were very understanding throughout the semester of each student’s personal situations. 

 “The engineering classes were surprisingly accommodating … which I didn’t really expect from them,” Burt said. “My schedule (was also) kind of different than a lot of people with all of my classes (being) asynchronous. So it was really nice and I could also watch lectures at my own pace.”

Thomas Schwarz, associate professor of physics and member of the COVID-19 Faculty Council, feared that while asynchronous classes might better suit students' personal learning styles, any online replication of in-person instruction would not be able to compare. Although Schwarz did not teach this semester, he is currently working on ideas to boost student engagement in the physics lab he will teach next semester. 

“What I worry about is that (student engagement) is just hard to fix until COVID is gone,” Schwarz said. “And maybe there are some things that could be done to encourage online interaction, but at the end of the day you want to be with your faculty, you want to be with your friends, and that takes out that central element of college that I don’t know if (it) can be replaced in any way.” 

Holmes said she will be implementing more study breaks for herself throughout the day to combat Zoom fatigue next semester. She acknowledged how professors and students did the best they could this past semester.

“I think in general, the semester went well, and class-wise our professors tried to be accommodating,” Holmes said. “It wasn't perfect … (but) our professors made the most of it.” 

Looking toward next semester, Nguyen said he hopes professors mandate participation for those who can attend class synchronously. 

“This is a hot take, but I think they should require people to show up to lectures,” Nguyen said. “I think it would increase participation in classes, thus allowing people to learn more. But in that, I think they should give less assignments.”

In addition to changes in class structure, Dunne said the administration needs to rebuild trust among  students, employees and faculty about pandemic-related changes. 

“Among students that I had the chance to talk to, there's just such a distrust for the administration, about their handling of COVID, about the treatment of students and professors and GSIs,” Dunne said. “Because the University has a responsibility to both its employees and students, and it really, definitely failed in the early part of the semester.” 

 

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at juforres@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at mlewand@umich.edu

 

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